This essay is also available as a Microsoft Word 2003/4 file.
Introduction, by way of a hilarious example
When Hayate made the remark in the title to his would-be girlfriend Nishizawa, he was actually lying: he said it as a way to avoid having to deal with her affections and all the complications that would ensue. But did he know the way he said it would be taken as such a huge rejection–of her as a woman and as a real partner? Sure, she might come to “hate” him, as the narrator says, and that was his intent, but going nuclear? Was he too naive to figure out that the average person cannot help but be deeply, deeply hurt to have been passed over in favor of something fundamentally unreal?
Perhaps he had been spending too much time with hikkikomori otaku Nagi, who clearly prefers the 2D world, period, and had begun to lose perspective. Or, as the narrator says comedy anime guys just never get dumped with dignity.
Hayate was lying, but the barely covered profiles of the SOS-Dan tell another story–this scene is funny because, for the otaku who get the full weight of the reference, it might actually be true on another level. Is this a problem? Is this why there’s always a certain kind of fan service (the sexual kind, I mean), aimed at the young otaku male, no matter how couched in irony and self-reference it’s been in recent years? Why exactly do we find animated 2D girls, in other words, objects of actual genuine lust?
This is my attempt to organize some thoughts on the matter.
Madarame Teaches You Aesthetic Theory
Why are 2D, drawn people sexually desirable at all? There’s a justly famous portion of Genshiken where Madarame, confronted by the “normal” woman Saki with a picture of an underage anime girl, proceeds to explain just what it is certain (mostly male) human beings find sexually enticing about anime and manga.
Madarame says it right–the key is not the drawing itself. That is, on one level, merely here or there (he uses simple line drawings of a smile and a female body to illustrate). It is really just a portal for the imagination to start its flight into the experience that it represents–whether it cave drawings of animals replicating the experience of hunting and nature, or, in this case, animated characters in various states of undress replicating the experience of titillation, foreplay, and intercourse. The imagination is the root, not the drawing, though the drawing itself is a product of imagination. That’s why burqas in some countries are, ostensibly, designed to simultaneously protect and control female sexuality as well as male desire–and why that fails to stop such things as rape and sexual assault entirely. You don’t strictly speaking need pornography or exposed flesh to feel desire so long as you have imagination.
In short, animated sexuality is a projection, a screen on which the desires of the audience can be shown simultaneously on one’s computer and one’s inner mind theater. This is true, of course, of all artistic work, particularly storytelling, and I really don’t think it’s an accident that even hentai sometimes strives to have a “plot,” no matter how contrived. Desire is so much more fulfilling in the context of a story. I don’t think anything I just said is terribly controversial, but Madarame, in the heat of the argument, takes it one step further:
Madarame, of course, is wrong: they’re not wrong, just different. Everyone’s turn-on will vary. But the jacking off part is a lead in to my next section–the objects of anime lust or at least desire.
Servicing the Fan: A Poll Analysis of Moe
The sexualized images, especially of females, is not something which has escaped mainstream attention. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial cited it as a key reason why Japan should not use manga and anime as cultural ambassadors. Friends have told me how strange and even discomfiting it is to see naked or near-naked women portrayed so casually even in relatively non-sexually charged anime like Ghost in the Shell. My guess is that some of these people would have a heart attack if they saw the fruits of the “moe” trend lately, or any random harem comedy. Point to as many counterexamples as you like–Studio Ghibli films, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, whatever–but the truth is that fan service is here to stay, and, beginning with Evangelion’s infamous episode previews, celebrated. What exactly serves as turn-ons?
Let’s use the recently concluded “fanboy fetish” poll on this very website as a starting point. What was the clear winner in all the non-miscellaneous choices? Yuri, of course, with 22% of the total vote, and that proportion has changed little over time. And it’s no surprise–because yuri is porn, the most explicit out of all the choices in the poll, offering the most nudity and the most sexual acts. This wouldn’t surprise, I suspect, even people like Dave Chappelle (“I like lesbians,” he admitted on one episode–and not because he’s gay-friendly). Some of the other unsurprising choices are less explicit but also clearly sexual–panties, chest size–but what perhaps is somewhat revealing is that they all lost to a three-way tie between three things: cat-ear girls, glasses girls, and, yes, little sisters. It doesn’t take much explanation to see why big-breasted, thigh-exposing women (sometimes with guns) are appealing, live-action or animated. We see it in Western media all the time. But all that other stuff? What gives?
First, what do they all have in common? They are all traits of the moe trend. Different moe girls have cat ears, glasses, and have a habit of either being actual younger sisters or call their older male peers “onii-chan” anyway. The last is a key: much of the moe-ness of a character actually depends on the girl NOT being supposedly sexually alluring, at least not physically, where it’s not supposed to be an issue. Or at least it reminds one of a time when it wasn’t an issue: why else are “childhood friend” characters so popular in harem romances, other than it representing a default girl who already likes you and thus you don’t have to work for? Sex is not the appeal on the surface, in fact, at first glance, it’s just the opposite. What do cat ears and glasses and sisters have that are inherently sexual?
So it seems, at least in more mainstream non-hentai examples. And so it probably remains for many, if not the majority, of its fans. But all you have to do is look at the reviews of hentai games at Something Awful to realize that, actually, a subsection of the otaku population does in fact sexualize–sometimes violently–these cute lil’ portraits of childhood innocence and sweetness. I’m fairly convinced this only appeals to a very small minority of fans, as it’s really indistinguishable in many ways from pedophilia, if it can even be called that since it has very little to do with the love implied by the word philo. But let’s not pretend that sexualizing underage characters or even “little sisters” is not an undercurrent even in some more mainstream moe anime, from Moetan where the duck drools over Ink-chan’s petite body to Chokotto Sister, which itself was a takeoff from Chobits. And let’s not forget the original moneymaking scheme Gainax developed, the computer game Princess Maker. These shows are not about having a romantic relationship so much as a brotherly or even fatherly one, the fantasy of actually raising a cute little girl, but with the promise of additional nudity here and there. I don’t know what reality they’re from if they think parenting or being a sibling of a kid, even a cute one, is ever sexually appealing in any long term stretch. They say familiarity breeds contempt for a reason, and as usual, Genshiken tells the truth: such fantasies could only have been concocted by someone who didn’t have a younger sister. (I’d love to take a poll to see how many who are seriously turned on by imouto actually have them.)
Actually, I don’t think it’s incest, or the lack of sexual markers, that’s really appealing about these kinds of chracteristics. It’s the dependence and helplessness that little sisters and little-sister-aged characters represent in the imagination. Helplessness, I suspect, is the key to moe: clumsiness, stumbling over one’s words, smallness, a propensity for tears. It is what is appealing about it. It engages the male instinct to protect and defend and to receive, in return, unconditional love and gratitude which families are supposed to have. These are legitimate and even fundamental desires for most anyone of either gender, and that they spill over into actual sexual turn ons for underage characters is, well, a perversion–in the original sense of the word, a taking of something good and true and twisting its ends for something it was not made for and which, exercised in real life, causes no end of pain and harm. And, again, it is the imagination at work, sometimes with a hentai push but even without it–like in purely non-sexual moe shows like Lucky Star and Manabi Straight–whatever is unclean, as Jesus once said, comes from the inside, not the outside. The show is never primarily to blame, especially when the show’s content (as in the two examples above) hardly supports the kind of fetishizing projected on it.
Helplessness–is that what some fans want from their girls and women? This leads me to the final part, which is about what this all might mean for gender expectations in anime.
Gender Roles in Animated Souls
Let’s be honest: give your local gender studies or cultural studies feminist professor a gander at a lot of anime of the wrong kind, and he or she’ll probably have a heart attack at how utterly unashamed the sexism a lot of this sort of stuff implies. Female helplessness is perhaps even more offensive to them than ordinary sexual porn or semi-porn, because it is the stereotype which justified so much discrimination of women in the past. Either helplessness or cheerful, unthinking subservience–I think of the beginning of Shuffle! where Kaede plays a housewife even a 1950s man would be surprised at (wry complaints about the “lazy husband” have always been an acceptable outlet even in patriarchal societies, but Kaede, at least at first, has none of that), and Nerine spends an entire episode trying to learn to cook an “omelette of happiness.”* I have no doubt that there are some women who actually do want something like this–the desire to please one’s love is a universal human desire, and I do believe that there can be a joy in devoting one’s life to serving others–but I have also no doubt that most women today would not want to be judged and treated by the standard of those who do and nothing else. Or live in a society governed on that assumption, or with a man who desires it when she does not.
One curious semi-exception to that is the whole tsundere phenomenon, but even that collapses into eventual submission. Yes, I admit, this is my fetish. Watching Louise get mad at Saito with a whip in Zero no Tsukaima is funny. I notice that tsunderes of that type very rarely show up, or at least express themselves the same way, in shoujo and josei fiction. I wonder how much of it is a somewhat guilty reaction to the above; it’s a way of being slightly “feminist,” however thin, in giving the girl at least some measure of initiative and control over the relationship–at least before the dere side shows up and she’s as sweet and pliant as any. (This is not a new plot–Taming of the Shrew anyone? It’s about turning, at worst, a one-dimensional character into a two-dimensional one.)
Or maybe it’s just more sublimated S&M desire. :) As Zero no Tsukaima has pretty much admitted, with relish. Though one of the most interesting moments in the recent episodes was when Saito, at last, responds with Louise’s usual accusations of dallying with a counter-accusation of her own fooling around–to which she blushes and equivocates in the same way he did a moment ago. They both yell at each other the same. The score, at last, is even.
Admittedly, if that’s the closest some anime gets the sexual equality, it’s pretty sad. Luckily, there’s always Ghibli films. :)
I would say that the key to respecting anyone regardless of gender, whether in real life or even in fiction, is to get to know the person as a person–fears, desires, quirks, etc. Most of the shows that people would probably find objectionable the most are so because the female characters are little more than vessels for male desires for service, gratitude, and sex. The thing with fiction, unlike real life, is that the writers and creators have some control over how they tell a story and characterize. Simply telling stories with well-developed (not necessarily THAT kind of developed!) female characters who actually resemble real human beings would go a very, very long way. Idealization is not necessarily a bad thing, within reason; I like Makoto Shinkai’s Byousoku 5 cm, which is about the contrast between an idealized childhood romance and the regret-filled present. Idealization is part of real life, too. The point where it crosses over is, for lack of a better word, when the ideal becomes just an object. Objectification, in other words.
Borrowing an insight from Flannery O’Connor, I would like to provocatively suggest that sentimentality–ie, sentimentalized shows of young girls who are always good to their “onii-chans,” harem shows where the girls are just eager to serve and/or bed the hapless guy, and other similar sorts–can function to the mind in the way regular porn functions to the libido. Like porn, it seems harmless at first, and once or even twice probably doesn’t too much lasting damage. Most can probably keep it cordoned off to a certain section of their lives, clearly distinguishing reality from fantasy. But it’s about a whole, well, anime diet of it. A setting of a pattern of what one enjoys and expects, and the resulting disappointment at the contrast between that and real life–or being upset when the formula is broken clumsily.
I remember when I was thinking I was dating someone and the relationship just not “clicking” that it hit me that I had been watching too much anime and TV–I had thought the relationship would go a lot faster and more smoothly than this, not these long, boring stretches of relative uneventfulness. Why wasn’t it like that, and why did I think it might have been that way? I think we all know the answer, and it’s not just inexperience; it is about the forming of expectations. Yes, it is true, as JRR Tolkien once said, that the people who are most concerned about escapism are jailers, but it is also true that it all depends on what one is escaping from–from real people and family? From real women and girls? Especially when it is the fantasy which begins to dictate, perhaps subconsciously, what one expects from them? I am not talking about enjoying a show because it’s simply “funny and cute and innocent.” It’s possible to enjoy even the most moeriffic show that way. The problem has always less been with the shows themselves, as I stated earlier on, it’s the imagination that feeds on them. It’s their use.
A Judeo-Christian sexual ethical moment here: I think it’s funny what School Days, for all its unbelievable situations and increasingly lurid happenings reveals. It reveals that when pure lust rears its head–in the person of Makoto–fans instinctively hate it. We call for Makoto’s blood. I’ve seen some who defend him mostly by saying, that’s the way high school males are–which may be true but is hardly justification. Most sense that there is something deeply out of order in the way Makoto feels little hesitation in bedding multiple girls when the two main girls, at least, are expecting devotion and faithfulness from him, when he has even said that he loves them. I somewhat regret the hopeful statements I made earlier about the show’s possible complexity and depth, but I still find it as oddly moralistic as I did then.
We are repulsed by naked lust. We know it’s wrong, not just because someone told us it was, but because we can just feel it in our bones, that adultery in particular is odious. Makoto promised love. And we know that sex is supposed to be accompanied by something else, at the end of the day; the teasing, the fan-service, the moe works precisely because they only serve up hints, the promise. It is the promise itself that allures, because as creatures made for hope, what the imagination projects onto even the tawdriest of boob and panty shots is, in the imagined world where such things actually happen, the hope that she also says the accompanying words (spoken or not, temporary or permanent): “I love you.” Maybe just with the body, but “love” is enough. The temperature, and perhaps something else if you’re male, and the heart, rises. They are not as disconnected as we suppose.
We have bodies and we have hearts, and neither lives without the other.
Note/disclaimer: you notice I’ve mostly been talking about fan service and sexualized images in anime that appeal primarily to heterosexual men. That’s, of course, because I’m one myself and I don’t have nearly the same kind of experience or authority to speak otherwise, to say the least. There’s plenty of fetishes available for the heterosexual female–everyone knows about yaoi, uke, seme, and the like, or just watch your favorite episode of Ouran to see it both satirized and celebrated–but I can’t claim any detailed knowledge of them. So please excuse me, fangirls: I do not mean to exclude you, I just mean to keep my mouth relatively shut on matters I know little about. :) The same goes with anime and manga aimed at homosexuals of both genders. *Yes: I am aware that the show becomes quite different later, serious even, but I haven’t seen the later parts of Shuffle yet. Please don’t spoil it in the comments!